Has Personal Finance Goddess Suze Orman Lost Her Luster?
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The Goddess of Prosperity
Orman’s frosted blonde hairdo, year-round tan and bedazzled fashions have sometimes been the butt of jokes (see this hilarious SNL clip). But the semiotics of her appearance is revealing, along with her speaking style, which tends to combine a Mother Superior, finger-wagging approach with New Agey-sounding spiritual platitudes. With her shiny golden visage and guru-speak, Orman signals that we are to see her as the goddess of both material and spiritual wealth. We are to be purified of our financial transgressions in the gleam of her golden effulgence.
In the spiritual realm, Orman inclines toward the East. The particular goddess she channels is Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. The embodiment of beauty and charm, as well as fortune, Lakshmi wears ornaments of lustrous gold and showers her devotees with cascades of golden coins. In her several hands she holds the promise of material beatitude. Orman's 2007 hit guide Women and Money pronounces the qualities of the new woman of wealth, which include wisdom and beauty as well as a spiritual devotion to cleanliness. In addition to scrupulously arranging the bills in her wallet each morning so that they face the same direction, Orman’s followers must imitate the women of India who welcome Lakshmi into their homes by sweeping clean their entryways. Goddesses like things tidy, apparently.
It’s easy to see why this quasi-spiritual approach was successful, particularly with women, who were often stuck in a financial limbo with few mentors and little substantive guidance. In a consumer world that talked to us as if our main purpose was to spend money and master the art of fellatio, Orman’s treatment of women as beings who could save, invest and handle debt as well as any man felt liberating. Orman understood that women’s roles shifted drastically over the past several decades, and along with them our relationship to money. We had risen into the professional and management ranks, yet still felt overwhelmingly insecure about our finances. Living longer, paid less than male peers, and penalized in the social safety net system, we had very real worries about ending our lives in poverty. I remember how my mother, a college professor who out-earned her husband, was denied a credit card by a local department store unless she had secured my dad’s permission. Navigating new financial waters could be frustrating and confusing. We often had issues with claiming our worth and demanding to be paid accordingly. Orman got all this, and Suze the Savior was ready to lead us to the Promised Land of Financial Freedom.
Women have a dysfunctional relationship with money, she told us, but Orman would be our relationship coach, showing us that the connection between net-worth and self-worth was an “absolute truth.” The implication of this was that women in low-paying jobs, like teachers, for example, weren’t worth much. Orman herself, commanding millions of dollars – and people -- was to be the new ideal of spiritual and material success.
Goddesses must be worshiped, and they like making decrees. From her television platform, Orman has delivered oracular judgments and brow-beatings to her devotees, making instantaneous decisions based on few facts. There are unstated rules of her ritual, and woe to the hapless follower who does not abide them. For example, to name factors beyond ourselves in order to understand our situation is heresy.
In the new introduction to Women and Money, written in 2009 after the financial crash, Orman admonishes us to forget about “blaming Wall Street and Washington” and get down to the business of personal responsibility. If you have big credit card balances, you’ve been living beyond your means. If you didn’t bother to create an emergency fund, you are lazy. But never fear! Just muster your “can-do spirit” and all will be well. If Orman admitted the truth, that many Americans have found themselves in debt, jobless and underwater with mortgages through no fault of their own -- and often through the deliberate fraud of financial criminals -- she would have to toss aside the golden whip. And that would be no fun at all. Orman is lately fond of saying she's on the side of the 99 percent, but her rhetoric sometimes sounds like it was dispensed by Wall Street lobbyists.